Review: Jonaki (2018)

Lolita Chatterjee’s final role before her death last May is the titular Jonaki, a lady on her deathbed.  Director Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s second film is composed of tableaux after tableaux, perhaps dreamed up by Jonaki, of her younger years. She recalls her exacting mother (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), a plant-obsessed father (Sumanto Chattopadhyay) and a Christian lover (Jim Sarbh).

Aditya describes Jonaki as "a recollection of memories and thoughts from the unfulfilled life of an 80-year-old woman." The film is inspired by the life of his grandmother. In Bengali, Jonaki means firefly.

Every image in Jonaki is carefully considered. Aditya has a fine eye for light and depth. The film moves on in a slow lull, which allows the viewer’s gaze to wander about and uncover the details. 

The scene takes precedence over nature. So much so that I felt alienated from the person of Jonaki. Even as Jonaki’s life plays out, the dreary, decaying landscape that recurs throughout the film is a constant reminder of old age and death. There is no riot in youth, no flash of colour in romance, and no uncertainty. Every recollection is an extension of the image of Jonaki stretched out on a hospital bed. The tableaux acquire a singularity in this way. The few moments in the film spent outside of Jonaki’s dreamscape were the most lively. 

Each scene holds together on its own. However, Aditya falls short in integrating his images. The impression left by a symbol in one scene is crowded over by subsequent symbols. Keeping track becomes a formulaic exercise – a bathtub, a mosquito net, toy soldiers, firecrackers, and oranges. Individually, the impressions lose intensity. And because how the rhythm in one scene flows to the next isn’t pronounced, the string of impressions falls flat.

Ghassan Kanafani writes in the short story “The Land of Sad Oranges” of a man for whom “the well-tended orange trees which he had bought one by one were printed on his face and reflected in the tears.” Oranges are oranges in Jonaki. They complete the scene but not Jonaki’s face and tears. 

Overall, Aditya’s camera is more canvas than eye. Canvas is more resistant to failure than the eye, but it doesn’t grow old and sick.

Review by Teenli Tan

Jonaki will screen on 26 May at 5pm at the Oldham Theatre, National Archives of Singapore as part of the 2019 Singapore International Festival of Arts.  

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